While on vacation at the beach several years ago, we met up with some old friends and their children. I was tickled to see my then 2-year-old daughter bonding with their 6-year-old son. He got a kick out of making her laugh—she was a relaxed and cheerful audience. I saw how the two kids got along so well, and my brain fast-forwarded 25 years to a daydream of their inevitable fairy tale wedding. I mentioned the fantasy to my friend. I might have even said, "She's in love with him."
I may have also giggled when my preschooler told me about her “boy friend” two years later. He was literally a boy and a friend; she didn’t have any intention of romantically bonding with another 4-year-old. She was confused and annoyed by my pressing questions about this boy friend. That’s when I recognized I was saddling her with a connotation she didn’t understand or welcome. I vowed to back off. I realized how little comments like mine snowball into a culture of romantic expectations based on gender.
A few years later, I was lost in thought in a busy waiting room, and an unfamiliar pre-school-aged child started inching toward my lap. "He's a flirt," said the adult with him. And then even the Duchess of Sussex herself, Meghan Markle, said her 5-month-old son Archie “likes to flirt” after the tot chuckled with a female human rights activist. Though I might have once made a similar comment, this all sounds incongruent to me now. It also really solidifies my stance on calling kids flirts.
Flirtation implies romance or sexuality in a context that is neither cute nor appropriate for children too young to even understand what those words mean. It also supports a notion that is particularly harmful to female children: that attracting a mate will be a primary life objective. Thinking back, I really do feel embarrassed. I had muddied a sweet childhood interaction with my own ingrained expectation that people must be coupled up to be happy. This indoctrination that romance makes life complete is an idea that overshadows any complex emotions my daughter was feeling.